We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
This civil rights movement legend has never left the grass roots.
Two dozen congregants stand up and shuffle away from the metal folding chairs inside Victory Outreach Ministries. Most of the assembled re-button their coats as they move forward for altar call, the personal prayer portion of the service. The plain white room glows in the kind of raw fluorescent lighting that emits no heat, so the worshipers shiver as they take small step after small step toward the Rev. Joseph Bishop. Some weep freely, some jerk their arms heavenward, and some kneel and bow their heads to ask for forgiveness.
At Bishop’s storefront church, the symbols of a typical District service—the double parking, the double-breasted suits, the pews, the gospel choir—are absent. The majority of the attendees are ex-addicts—and their Sundays feature a needy, desperate form of worship. As the altar call goes on, the patrons whisper in quick rasps, sounding like a kettle approaching boiling point. Some fall into the arms of fellow “brothers,” and some simply break down mid-prayer.
Alone in the back of the hall, leaning against the church’s DJ booth, Cornelius “Cornbread” Givens sucks air from his oxygen tank—the one he’s used since being diagnosed this past March with emphysema. Givens isn’t here as part of some rehab assignment. Instead, the 68-year-old has come to preach his own gospel, on the power of cooperative businesses. It is a subject he hasn’t stopped rapping about since the late ’60s, when he was an activist studying under A. Philip Randolph, one of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders.
Givens soaks in the altar call, Bishop’s holy-roller speechifying, the final song, and the cookies-and-coffee reception without getting annoyed. If you are Cornbread Givens, you’ve learned to be patient.
The reception ends, and Givens—his face a maze of wrinkles, his eyes yellowed with age, his hands thin and shaky—quietly calls his own workshop to order. Five men gather ’round to watch Givens unfold a stapled packet containing the District’s regulations on cooperative associations. After the emotional frenzy of the New Testament, this text ain’t exactly what you’d call a page-turner. “‘Association’ means a group enterprise legally incorporated under this chapter,” Givens reads, “and shall be deemed to be a nonprofit corporation.” As Givens talks, fluid from his lungs muffles his voice.
Still, Givens goes on and on, thumbing his way through the packet. He explains the core of his idea directly: He wants to help these guys start community-owned businesses, where they all pool their resources. When Givens finishes with his definition, one man leaves for a cookie refill.
“I think this is an opportunity,” Givens says. “Do you hear what I’m saying? Are you listening?”
The men perk up with each question. “How do we start?” a man in gray sweats asks.
Givens makes each sign his name to a legal pad, abruptly ending the meeting. “All right, brothers,” he says. “Thank you.” The next seminar will be tomorrow evening, he adds. Today, he just wanted to know who was interested.
Givens has made this pitch thousands of times. He made it before there were hippie communes and before there were empowerment zones, when the Great Society was promising to end poverty and when Bill Clinton was promising to end welfare. He has stayed on message for 30 years, repeating over and over his co-op mantra. The only difference is that nowadays his audience isn’t civil rights leaders or the District’s political elite. The last of a dying breed, Givens preaches a kind of organizing deemed hopelessly passe by the mainstream in the plump ’90s. So he speaks instead to addicts in desperate need of financial direction. And Givens, who may need a little fiscal help himself, likes that just fine.
Givens’ phone has been disconnected, so on a late-September night, I decide to drive over to his house in Shaw. Weeds and grass grow high in the small front lawn. Blinds crookedly cover the windows. At 8 o’clock, the lights are all off. Letters sit in the mail slot. No one answers, so I knock on a neighbor’s door. She says that Givens lives out of a clinic nearby.
I check the local clinics. No Cornbread. On the other hand, just about everyone in Shaw claims to know who he is. The dudes hanging outside the liquor stores along 6th Street just below Rhode Island Avenue NW, the ones standing along Q Street. The residents loitering outside churches down on M Street. It helps, of course, that my mark is called Cornbread. How could you not remember a name like that? (In fact, Givens won’t even tell people the name his mother gave him.)
Eventually, it is Givens who finds me—after I write him a letter requesting an interview. We meet a few days later at the church. It is late morning, and Givens, still dressed in pajamas and bathrobe, slowly sips up a bowl of cereal. “God bless you, brother,” he says.
Givens has been living at Victory Outreach, making a curtained-off bunk bed his home, since he suffered a mild stroke in late January. Givens says he had to leave his 5th Street house because it was being renovated, but I didn’t see any signs of repair when I stopped by. He doesn’t have any family in the area and couldn’t afford to rent another place, so he moved into Victory, which also houses about a dozen other congregants.
Aside from his Social Security check, all that he has left is his co-op pitch. It goes like this: Take the consumer dollars of folks like the guys at Victory Outreach, put them into three or four businesses serving those same people, and invest the profits at home, rather than at some distant corporate headquarters. “That same consumer money, the dollars they spend—harness that energy into workable capital,” he explains.
Givens moved to D.C. because of Marion Barry. He had visited the city before, shuttling to conferences and protests, but after Barry was elected mayor in 1979, Givens transplanted himself to the District permanently. “He was a real revolutionary,” Givens says. “I saw hope: Here’s somebody in the movement. Maybe something can happen with this guy. You assumed he had the heart for it.”
Givens already had quite a rep by the time he got here. Development Corporation of Columbia Heights President Robert Moore remembers hearing about Givens long before he met him. “He was a fire-eater,” Moore says. “An activist. I was anxious to meet this guy.”
Raised in poverty in Jersey City, N.J., Givens lied about his age and name to join the Army at 15, left at 18, and became a radical at 19, back in the early ’50s. He soon began organizing demonstrations in Jersey City and New York. Givens says that if he hadn’t joined the civil rights movement, he would have ended up in jail. “I got tired of stealing, tired of robbing pocketbooks, tired of being tired,” he says.
In 1965, Givens ran for mayor of Jersey City. He came in fifth out of six contenders. A year later, he organized a sit-in at the Department of Labor’s Manhattan office in an attempt to get funding for a youth summer program. During the takeover, he strung clotheslines out the window, trashed the offices, even threw typewriters down to the street in an effort to get attention. “It was a real ghetto scene,” he jokes. “The bottom line is, the kids got the summer money.”
Givens says he soon became close friends with Randolph, who at the time had just founded an organization of black trade unionists—the A. Philip Randolph Institute—which fought for racial and economic justice. Givens says the elder activist would tutor him on civil disobedience in long sessions two to three times a week. It was Randolph who told him about cooperatives. “I said, ‘Wow, this is it,’” Givens remembers. “‘This is it. This is the way we have to go.’”
In late 1968, Givens came to the District for the Poor People’s Campaign, a high-profile anti-poverty encampment that firmly established the Rev. Jesse Jackson as the main successor to the recently murdered Martin Luther King Jr. on the national civil rights stage. Givens, who found himself camped out in the mud at the section of the Mall renamed Resurrection City, started talking to other men and women there. Givens pitched his pitch, and the Poor People’s Development Foundation was formed.
When Givens returned to Jersey City, he says, he began setting up cooperatives with people he had met at Resurrection City, worked in Manhattan for future mayor David Dinkins’ first political campaign, and lobbied unions and civil rights leaders to embrace his idea of economic empowerment. He also got married and divorced, in the first of two unions that would produce a total of four children.
When Barry became mayor, Givens came to the city in the hope that Barry could help him get his foundation off the ground, help him set up co-ops. Although he now says Barry was “all talk,” Givens did receive $40,000 from Moore, then head of D.C.’s Department of Housing and Community Development, to start up food co-ops in the housing projects. And he did succeed in establishing them in the Barry Farms and Eastgate complexes, among others. But, Givens says, he was still scraping by, always worried about his foundation’s next check.
Givens says he made “little of nothing”—no more than $10,000 a year, never enough to stabilize himself financially. He blames Barry. But the former mayor says that he could never convince enough people in his administration to sign on to Givens’ ideas. “People didn’t understand what he was trying to do,” Barry argues in a phone interview. “He’s idealistic….Give poor people, low-economic people, a share? It’s alien to a lot of people’s philosophy.”
With four kids to feed and clothe, and an organization constantly in the red, Givens was desperate. So in 1982, when Ivanhoe Donaldson, then deputy mayor for economic development, offered him a lucrative contract, he claims, he couldn’t pass it up. Casting himself as the naif, Givens today says that trusting Donaldson was one of the worst decisions of his life.
According to Dream City, Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood’s book on Barry’s Washington, Donaldson offered the Poor People’s Development Foundation a contract for $27,500. But Givens says Donaldson told him that he could take only part of the money—$6,000. According to Givens, he was instructed to use the rest of the money to fund two other organizations.
A year later, in January 1983, Donaldson had another contract offer that Givens couldn’t refuse. This time Givens would get to keep $13,000 for his foundation. The activist says he was reluctant but went through with the deal.
Any suspicions Givens had were correct. Donaldson was handing Givens bogus contracts he was using to embezzle thousands of dollars from the District government. The other organizations that received money from Givens turned out to be fronts for Donaldson.
In January 1985, FBI agents showed up at Givens’ office. Givens says he knew that they were coming and that they knew about the contracts. Givens had called Donaldson, and they had developed a trail of phony documents to cover their tracks. But, Givens says, he changed his mind and told the agents the truth. Donaldson eventually was sentenced to seven years for his embezzlement and paid $127,000 in fines. Givens was never charged with any wrongdoing.
“It knocked us out,” Givens says of his foundation. “It set back the whole effort. We were on a roll. It just winded down….I’m still disappointed in Donaldson. He has never apologized.”
Givens decided it would be best to leave the political arena for a while. In the mid-’80s, he started his own plastic-bag distribution business and continued pitching co-ops to anyone who would listen. When that business dried up—he says he was overtaken by major plastic-bag conglomerates, er, the Man—Givens stuck to his co-op pitch full time. And when Sharon Pratt Dixon came into office as mayor, once again Givens found a willing ear. Dixon liked his ideas enough to sponsor some of Givens’ initiatives and help him develop the University of the District of Columbia’s Center for Cooperatives.
In 1991, Givens ran in a special election for the Ward 2 seat on the D.C. Council, but he lost handily to Jack Evans. He soon faded from public view. What slogan did he use? “I don’t remember,” says Givens.
Former At-Large Councilmember Frank Smith, himself a civil rights movement veteran, says that Givens is obstinate to a fault. Although Smith concedes that Givens has a “legendary reputation,” it’s because he’s a broken record when it comes to economics: co-ops, co-ops, co-ops. Smith says the city of Givens’ dreams will probably always be just a dream. “The level of effort that it takes to operate a co-op is greater than people have time for right now,” Smith argues. “It had more currency in the ’60s and ’70s, when people believed there was a social revolution in America where we were going to [take over] the system. That didn’t happen.”
Still, Givens keeps coming back to preaching the gospel of cooperative businesses, resigned to the fact that he is one of the last of his generation of activists still working with the disenfranchised.
As we sit at a 14th Street bus stop on a late October evening, the activist says he is comfortable with his fate. He won’t let me into his house—Givens has moved back home—so this is where we’ll have to talk. “The closer I get to God, the more I realize I’m anointed to do what I’m doing,” he says. “I don’t have a choice. There is no such thing as giving up. I’m here to promote a concept of economics that’s more godly than any other.”
“The true activists are still out here,” he continues, staring into the curb. “They’re invisible, like I am. The Invisible People.” CP